I’ve mentioned before that European warfare’s big offensive actions had traditionally, and for good reasons, been concentrated on the spring and the early autumn (15 March 1915: Spring Fever). Broadly speaking, this pattern had been retained through 1915, and it had characterised planning for the spring of 1916 until the early opening of Germany’s Verdun offensive altered the timing of Allied attacks on both main fronts.
Come the autumn of 1916, Verdun, the Somme and the Brusilov Offensive were all still in progress, albeit grinding towards exhausted termination. With plenty of demands on their stretched resources from secondary fronts in Italy, central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus (to name only the headliners), the protagonists on the Eastern and Western Fronts were in no position to plan big new offensives.
So while you could hardly call the beginning of October 1916 a quiet time, it wasn’t infused with the grand schemes and rampant optimism that came with a new set of plans designed to end the War. Granted, the ongoing battle for Romania was generating plenty of excitement, and the Italian high command was keeping things lively with repeated, failed attacks around the River Isonzo (the seventh Isonzo Offensive had graced three days in mid-September, the eighth would begin in a week), but broadly speaking the War entered its third autumn in business as usual mode.
That makes this is a good moment to talk about one of those theatres of war that went about its bad business without ever quite generating a narrative for posterity. The First World War entailed a fair few of those, partly thanks to posterity’s tunnel vision, but on this occasion I’m referring to the Mediterranean Sea. On 4 October 1916, German submarines sank two large, Allied ships in the Mediterranean, so I’ll use their fates as a starting point.
The RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Franconia was a modern Cunard liner, operated on the North Atlantic run since 1911 and converted as a troop ship in early 1915. She was some 300km east of Malta on 4 October, en route for Salonika, when sunk by a torpedo from the German submarine UB-47 (UB was the designation given to Germany’s small, coastal attack submarines). No troops were aboard, but twelve of her 314-strong crew were killed.
The SS Gallia was a new French liner, built in 1913, and had worked the South Atlantic crossing before her conversion as a troop ship. Also on her way to Salonika (from Toulon) on 4 October, she was packed with 2,000 troops and 350 crewmen when, halfway between Sardinia and Tunisia, a torpedo from the U-35 sent her to the bottom. Hundreds drowned before help reached the wreck, though no precise casualty figures were ever compiled.
These losses make a small point about the roles played by big passenger ships, which performed auxiliary naval tasks all over the world throughout the War, but also sum up the general pattern of Mediterranean warfare. The Allies dominated the theatre, and needed to because use of the Mediterranean was absolutely vital to their war efforts, while the Central Powers did their best to disrupt the constant flow of Allied troops and supplies, both to battlefronts all across the region and to home fronts. A quick look at regional geopolitics should explain why.
The Central Powers didn’t have much going on in the Med. The Ottoman Empire’s relatively ramshackle and elderly navy operated in the east, bolstered by the addition of two modern German ships in August 1914 (10 August, 1914: Playing Battleships), but was also heavily committed to operations against Russian forces in the Black Sea (28 March, 1916: Infested Waters). The Austro-Hungarian Navy, smaller but equipped with modern dreadnoughts, destroyers and cruisers, meanwhile operated out of its only major port, Pola (now Pula, in Croatia), in the northern Adriatic. Its ships couldn’t reach the wider Mediterranean without a long trip down the coast of Italy, and were essentially trapped from the moment Italy failed to go to war alongside its original diplomatic partners, the Central Powers, in 1914.
On the Allied side, the large, modern, well-equipped French Navy had been able to concentrate almost all its resources on the Mediterranean since reaching agreements with the British in 1912, and the Italian Navy had been through a rapid expansion, building fast, modern warships as part of a naval arms race with Austria-Hungary. Both forces were deployed to keep the Austro-Hungarian Navy bottled up in the Adriatic, to protect vital trade through their many Mediterranean ports, and to maintain links with North African colonies. Though the British Royal Navy had restricted its Mediterranean commitments since 1912, to concentrate on protecting home waters from the German Navy, it still maintained substantial (albeit largely second-line) forces in various bases throughout the theatre, and their first duty was to protect trade flowing to Britain through the Suez Canal.
This isn’t the place to roll out yards of figures detailing the relative strengths of the Mediterranean navies, but we’re talking a massive advantage for the Allies. Understandably enough, with the Ottoman fleet out of reach beyond the Dardanelles, it was widely assumed that the Allied fleets would at some point combine to knock the Austrian Navy out of the War – but at a time when major warships were seen by their commanders as too valuable to be risked in any kind of bold action, the anticipated battleship confrontation never came.
The Austrians stayed put behind the optimistically named Otranto Barrage, a permanent patrol of Allied (largely Italian) warships theoretically blockading the Straits of Otranto, while the Italian Navy’s big ships remained on watch in case they changed their minds. The French Navy’s dreadnoughts did the same, once they had protected initial troop movements from North Africa to Europe and taken part in 1915’s attempt to force the Dardanelles Straits. The Royal Navy kept more busy – enduring the lion’s share of the Dardanelles shambles and otherwise protecting or facilitating mass troop transfers around campaigns in Gallipoli, the Middle East and Salonika – but also did its best to keep major warships out of potential trouble.
In place of full-scale battles, a four-year war of raid and ambush by smaller surface craft took place wherever opposing powers existed in close proximity. Italians fought Austrians in the Adriatic, British and Ottoman forces competed in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, and these ‘mosquito’ battles extended to wherever Allied warships were engaged in troop support duties. But for all the coastal fighting in support of ground troops, for all the sporadic dash and derring-do of minelayers, torpedo boats, destroyers and sometimes even cruisers, and for all their occasional victories over major fleet units, commerce war was the big, strategic story of the Mediterranean’s First World War – and that only got fully underway once German submarines began arriving in the theatre.
The first long-range U-boats reached Austrian service in February 1915, and were soon followed by smaller, coastal craft. Based at the relatively small Adriatic port of Cattaro, and flying the Austro-Hungarian flag until Italy and Germany were officially at war in August 1916, they inflicted enormous damage on busy Allied trade routes. They were helped by the Mediterranean’s shallow, generally calm waters, which made life much easier for relatively primitive submarines, and by the long-term inefficiency of Allied anti-submarine measures.
The Allied Mediterranean fleets, generally under the (nominal) overall command of a French admiral, divided responsibility for protection of shipping into national spheres of influence. They deployed their own submarines (which had precious little non-military traffic to attack) for the needle-in-a-haystack task of hunting U-boats, sent merchant and troop ships out individually or in small groups, and only assigned warships to protect particularly important cargoes. This system, which left most Allied shipping with no protection at all, was a miserable failure. That it was still failing in October 1916 is evidenced by the fact that the Gallia‘s precious cargo of troops didn’t merit warship escort.
The Mediterranean commerce war was in some ways more intense and more dangerous than its better-known Atlantic counterpart. Although loss of life was generally lower in the relatively hospitable Mediterranean, Allied merchant shipping was much more likely to be attacked on Mediterranean routes.
Mediterranean U-boats also came much closer to achieving strategic success with their trade campaign (though without the same fatal effects on American opinion), and would come close to completely paralysing the Italian economy by the time the Allies finally adopted the protection used against surface riders in Napoleonic times, the convoy system, in the spring of 1918.
This has rambled, it’s been short on detail and it’s left a bunch of interesting subplots for another day, but I hope it’s provided some perspective on a sprawling, highly active and strategically significant theatre of naval warfare that heritage tends to treat as a mere adjunct to the many land campaigns it serviced or otherwise affected.